The Best Foreign Documentaries of 2017
Alongside the standout dramas, comedies and action-adventure blockbusters, a crop of superlative non-fiction films have helped turn 2017 into an exceptional year for cinema. Whether focusing on everyday citizens struggling with universal dilemmas, brave exiles battling injustice, or unique artists grappling with mortality, these features afford viewers incisive windows into other lives and worlds, as well as complex issues both big and small. Marked by formal daring, they’re not only notable for their captivating tales, but also for their novel ways of recounting them. In doing so, they prove as adventurous and engaging as their subjects, and once again demonstrate that there’s nothing quite as transfixing, or illuminating, as a well-told true story.
Baltimore has long had a serious problem with rats. Despite its title, however, Rat Film is not merely an up-close-and-personal examination of those rodents; rather, it’s an inquiry into their thorny relationship with their environment. Comprised of archival photos and documents, news clippings and maps, 3D video game sequences, shots from rats’ POVs, scenes involving amateur urban rat killers, and panoramic vistas of Maryland’s most famous city, director Theo Anthony’s film employs a thoroughly idiosyncratic style in order to link Baltimore’s long-running rat infestation with its geographic and socio-cultural development—a process that routinely involved segregating its black and white populations. Scored to an eclectic electronica soundtrack, and narrated by Maureen Jones in an eerily dispassionate voice, Anthony’s non-fiction essay refuses to hold its viewers’ hands, instead content to use shrewd juxtapositions of varied materials to present a damning indictment of how systems institutionalize oppression of the “undesirable.”
In Italy’s tiny Tuscany region lies Monticchiello, whose residents have a most unusual annual ritual: they stage a play about their own lives, starring themselves. Directors Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s Spettacolo (its title translated as “performance”) is a mesmerizing account of that yearly project, tracing not only the logistical toil entailed by that endeavor (writing scripts, building sets, casting and rehearsing), but also the tenuousness of the tradition itself, thanks to a younger generation less interested than their elders in maintaining it. Born from WWII trauma, and functioning as a way to analyze and voice their contemporary concerns and grievances, the play operates as an inimitable form of “auto-drama.” That the current show’s focus on economic anxieties is paralleled with a local-bank benefactor’s scandalous collapse only further underlines the intricate links here between fiction and non-fiction
One of Us
The difficult of escaping religious fundamentalism is depicted in harrowing first-person detail by One of Us, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s sterling documentary about three young individuals trying to leave their NYC Hasidic Jewish community. For Lazer, who’s already abandoned his wife and children for the West Coast where he wants to make it as an actor, that means living in a parking-lot trailer. For teenage Ari, who’s only just learning about the Internet (thanks to a sheltered upbringing), it entails coping with childhood abuse via excessive drug use. And for Etty, a mother of seven, it necessitates dealing with attempts on her life by her husband and his cohorts, who object to her wish to retain custody of her children while living a more secular life. In their heartbreaking stories of suffering and survival, Ewing and Grady (Jesus Camp) pinpoint the way religious organizations institutionalize loyalty, obedience and abuse—and how breaking free from such a milieu requires equal measures of courage and sacrifice.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
Dubbed “the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement,” trans icon Marsha P. Johnson was a New York City fixture whose life was cut tragically short in 1992 when her body was discovered in the Hudson River. Though police deemed her death a suicide, director David France’s (How to Survive a Plague) outstanding documentary argues otherwise, following Anti-Violence Project activist Victoria Cruz as she reopens Johnson’s cold case. More than just another true-crime thriller, France’s non-fiction film uses Johnson’s unjust fate to highlight the historic persecution and marginalization of transgender men and women, including a detour into a modern headline-making trial that underlines how such discrimination continues to exist today. Enhanced by a wealth of old photos and film clips, not to mention interviews with Johnson and some of her closest friends and comrades, it’s a stirring snapshot of the arduous path traversed by many in the trans community—and, also, a hopeful plea for a better tomorrow.
A deceptively profound travelogue-cum-artistic treatise, Faces Places allows its themes to emerge naturally from its free-flowing action, which concerns New Wave pioneer Agnès Varda and photographer JR traveling around the French countryside taking snapshots of local citizens and then blowing those portraits up to titanic size and placing them on local structures. Along their way, they discuss the 89-year-old Varda’s failing eyesight, JR’s habit of never removing his trademark sunglasses and hat, and how their new works remind them of their old ones. With a breezy, convivial air, the film captures the infectious spirit of its subjects, whose collaborative mission—whether taking them to a farm, a shipyard, or the home of Jean-Luc Godard—suggests the many ways in which issues of photography, memory, and environment intersect. Moreover, be it in scenes of JR snapping pictures of Varda’s feet, or of Varda badgering her younger partner to show the camera his face, it proves an evocative rumination on the act of seeing and being seen, as well as the universal desire to preserve that which has come before.
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
At 87 years old, Frederick Wiseman continues to be one of cinema’s most vital documentarians, as evidenced by his latest opus, Ex Libris, which presents a wide-ranging view of the New York Public Library. As with so many of his prior works, Wiseman’s newest offering is devoid of narration or other hand-holding gestures; instead, it segues smoothly between protracted scenes of people going about their work at the venerable establishment. Boardroom business conversations, fundraising get-togethers, educational and vocational seminars and more fill out this expansive portrait, which also includes trips to numerous five-borough library branches to convey the way in which the library functions as a universal organization—available and useful to all—that helps bind together New York City’s diverse neighborhoods and cultures. At 197 minutes, it’s an engrossing non-fiction experience that imparts its lessons through its choice of material and shrewd juxtapositions, all while immersing one in the atmosphere of curiosity, investigation and preservation that defines the still-relevant-in-the-digital-age institution.
City of Ghosts
For his last documentary, 2015’s Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman visited the perilous Mexican-American border to provide an intimate look at the battle against the region’s drug kingpins. He again puts himself directly in harms way with City of Ghosts, an equally riveting study of courage under immense fire, which concentrates on Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a group of “citizen journalists” committed to documenting ISIS’ reign of terror in their Syrian hometown of Raqqa. Now forced into exile, these brave individuals use embedded sources to obtain damning evidence of ISIS’ crimes, and then disseminate them online—a plan of attack that’s resulted in persistent death threats and the murder of some of their compatriots. Replete with ghastly footage of ISIS atrocities, such as the execution of one RBSS member’s father (shot with Hollywood-grade productions), Heineman’s doc is a tribute to these dissidents’ valor, as well as an insightful portrait of modern media’s role in our ongoing war on terror.
Dawson City: Frozen Time
A work of resurrected living history, Dawson City: Frozen Time is transportive in a manner few films—non-fiction or otherwise—achieve. Director Bill Morrison uses clips from hundreds of highly combustible nitrate silent-movie reels that were unearthed in the Yukon River outpost of Dawson City in 1978, as well as archival photos and on-screen text, to present a ghostly history lesson about northern Canada’s turn-of-the-century gold rush, and of Dawson City itself. From the fires that frequently burned it to the ground, to the indigenous populations that were pushed aside by settlers, to the Hollywood and business luminaries that once lived there (including Donald’s Trump’s grandfather, who began his fortune with a brothel), it’s an awe-inspiringly sweeping study. Morrison further conjures a sense of the past—and of life’s impermanence—through expert montages of long-forgotten silent dramas and comedies. Set to Alex Somers’ gorgeous, melancholy score, those faded, corrupted black-and-white images feel like echoes from a distant era, here lovingly resurrected so that they might live again.
I Called Him Morgan
In a year of great documentaries, the most unshakeable one is I Called Him Morgan, a haunting account of the life, and untimely demise, of promising jazz superstar Lee Morgan. With a fluid style that’s in tune with its subject’s music, director Kasper Collin’s masterwork serves as not only the life story of Lee but also of his wife Helen, a fiercely independent older woman who travelled her own rocky road before meeting the trumpeter. Their up-and-down relationship came to involve heroin addiction, adultery, and a fatal gunshot fired by Helen on February 18, 1972, a saga that Collin recounts through concurrent twin narratives (bolstered by a tape recording made by Helen a mere month before her death) and a syncopated editorial style that’s as sharp as it is evocative. An air of fatalistic doom hangs over these proceedings, but what’s so amazing about Collin’s film is that such inevitability is married to a bracing sense of life’s inherent, inescapable disarray.
No matter the Academy’s refusal to let it compete in this year’s non-fiction category (because it marries dramatized sequences to its more straightforward verité segments), Errol Morris’s Wormwood is a masterful documentary. What Morris creates with his opus, about the CIA nefariousness that led to government biochemist Frank Olson’s death in 1953, is something wholly new: a hybrid in which staged material (all set in the past, and starring a standout cast led by Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker) and eclectic montages are used to capture a deeper truth about real-life events, as well as the psychological dynamics that begat them. As a true-crime saga, it’s a suspenseful return to the genre that Morris first elevated to prominence with 1988’s The Thin Blue Line. Even more than its straightforward thrills, however, Wormwood is a formally breathtaking inquiry into individual obsession and powers-that-be treachery, employing deft filmmaking techniques to burrow deeply into personal tragedy and national trauma. Seen in either its 241-minute theatrical iteration or its simultaneously-debuted-on-Netflix six-part mini-series, it’s as good as movies got in 2017.
Honorable mention: The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, Trophy, Icarus, Obit, All This Panic, The Rape of Recy Taylor, The Work, Oklahoma City, A Gray State, A River Belo
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the editors of Esquire Philippines.